Germany's new Panther KF51 tank is the successor to a World War II legend

Yes, 'that' WWII tank.
Christopher McFadden

In recent tank news, Germany's Rheinmetall Defense has finally revealed plans for its newest main combat tank, the KF51 Panther main battle tank (MBT). Equipped with a massive 5 and 1/8-inch (130 mm) main gun, this private-venture design is aimed as a long-term successor to the widely used and aging Leopard 2

Primarily aimed at, no pun intended, the German Army, the new tank may well attract interest from other European countries looking at the future of their own armored forces.

The KF51 Panther, named after the famed Nazi German tank of World War II, was unveiled today by Rheinmetall CEO Armin Papperger at the Eurosatory land defense expo in Paris.

Apart from the details revealed at the expo, little other information is currently available to the public. However, according to reports, the tank will likely come in at around 65 tons in weight.

If true, this makes it lighter than the Leopard 2, which, according to the German Army, weighs a little over 70 tons in its most recent 2A7V configuration. The Panther's mobility should be enhanced over its predecessor thanks to the same 1,475-horsepower diesel engine.

This would also make the new Panther lighter than many other modern Western MBTs, especially later versions of the U.S.-made M1 Abrams, which weigh over 70 tons, give or take. Apparently, tank designers have also opted not to use a more modern propulsion system, like a hybrid engine. This is probably to enable faster development and delivery of the tank. 

new panther tank
Artist's impression of the new KF51 Panther MBT. Source: Rheinmetall Defense

The new tank is light but still packs a punch

The main gun on the new MBT is, as previously mentioned, a smoothbore 1/8-inch (130 mm) caliber gun, which is more powerful than the 4 and 23/32-inch (120 mm) gun on the Leopard 2. This shows a wider interest in making tanks with bigger guns, and Rheinmetall has been working on the gun for a long time.

According to Papperger, the 5 and 1/8-inch (130 mm) gun is "more than 50 percent more powerful" than the gun on the Leopard 2 and will have "a much longer range." It will also be able to fire both projectiles with kinetic energy and programmable explosives.

A 4 and 23/32-inch (12.7 mm) coaxial machine gun and a weapon station that can be controlled by remote control are also planned for the new tank, according to Papperger. There will also be plans for launchers for HERO 120, so-called loitering ammunition, drones, and unknown missiles, possibly of a type that would provide localized air defense since an anti-aircraft machine gun hasn't been mentioned yet.

All well and good, but what about defensive capabilities? 

There aren't many details about the Panther's protection, but Rheinmetall has said that the crew will be safer than in the Leopard 2 and will be able to use active, reactive, and passive protection technologies. The Rheinmetall "StrikeShield active protection system" will be installed to protect against threats like anti-tank weapons and suicide drones. StrikeShield, which used to be called APS-Gen3, was the first system of its kind to pass a strict independent safety test. That should have calmed the fears of potential customers who worried that these defenses could put friendly troops and innocent bystanders in danger.

The Leopard 2 has a crew of four, but the Panther only has three: a commander, a gunner, and a driver. This is made possible by an autoloader that feeds the main gun with ammunition. If needed, a fourth person can be added to the crew. This could be a specialist or a platoon commander.

The crew will have digital networking capabilities that will make them more valuable on the battlefield. Each soldier will also be able to call up information from all sensors, weapons, power packs, and other subsystems as needed. Rheinmetall says that because each crew member can take over tasks from the others, the tank could also be set up in the future with unmanned turrets or even an unmanned version.

Overall efficiency will also improve thanks to the NATO Generic Vehicle Architecture (NGVA), an open-architecture system that lets sensors and weapons be added quickly and makes it easier for platforms to work together.

It's possible that the timing for a Leopard 2 successor for the German Army is coincidental. As Berlin responds to the war in Ukraine by investing in military modernization, a $112 billion "special fund" from the 2022 budget has been set aside to purchase new weaponry. At the same time, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reiterated his commitment to raising defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, in accordance with NATO goals.

The current situation in Ukraine has reignited debate over the tank's future in general. While thick armor has played a crucial role in MBTs' conventional breakthrough function, its susceptibility to a variety of weapons has also been highlighted. In some ways, the KF51 Panther appears to be addressing such facts from various perspectives. Overall, it should be lighter and nimble than current MBTs, have a larger main gun, and offer stand-in observation and strike with loitering munitions.

Overall, the KF51 Panther arrives at a pivotal moment in tank warfare, and it has the potential to help determine the future of MBT forces in Germany and beyond.

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